Physical Hazards of Slaughterhouse Workers Workers are expected to process large amounts of animals in a very short period of time. "Some cutters are forced to make five cuts every fifteen seconds," a pace that brings about a large number of injuries. Some reports have that 25% of workers in the industry are injured or struck ill every year (Dillard, 2008). Typical injuries in meatpacking include carpal tunnel syndrome, musculoskeletal injuries, all the way to life-threatening injuries. The pace of work demanded by bosses and the use of dangerous tools exacerbates the problem. The knives used are typically very sharp, so that they can easily slice through bone. The hours are also long, and the poverty of the workers makes them likely to take long hours, work overtime, work tired, and also to be disempowered with respect to speaking up against unsafe working conditions. The meatpacking industry is one of the most prominent in research into carpal tunnel syndrome in the workplace, as can be expected when routine physical tasks are performed at a rate of once every three seconds for forty hours per week (Palmer, Harris & Coggon, 2007).
The Nature of Slaughterhouse Work
Reporting and Organizational Culture
Slaughterhouses are among the most hazardous workplace environments, and represent a significant challenge for industrial hygienists. Musculoskeletal injuries are the most common form, and are typically related to repetitive stress. Workers in this industry are asked to perform routine tasks at a sustained high rate of speed, and the use of advanced ergonomics is not universal in the industry. Trauma injuries occur at a much higher rate than normal in this industry and these are usually related to the sharp blades and heavy equipment. Around two-thirds of musculoskeletal injuries are serious enough to necessitate time off work, and many workers will work through chronic pains without reporting it. Indeed, while rates of injuries in this industry have diminished significantly, there are reasons to believe that some of this reduction is due to the increase in non-reporting of injuries. There are many other significant injury risks as well, including chemical burns, psychological trauma, hearing damage and exposure to disease and pathogens.
For the repetitive stress injuries, the most common remediation is ergonomics. Ergonomic solutions can benefit the companies as well, by allowing workers to perform tasks more quickly but with less injury risk. However, the organizational culture in this industry is a barrier to improving safety conditions. The industry emphasizes high volume throughput that often runs counter to ergonomic principle. Furthermore, worker safety has never really been taken that seriously as an issue. Many workers are unskilled and uneducated, and this work represents a steady job at above minimum wage. These workers are typically disempowered, and this affects reporting of injuries and it also affects the likelihood of workers to enforce what few rights they do have.
Overall, the slaughterhouse industry presents significant challenges to the industrial hygiene industry. Nearly every aspect of this industry creates some form of risk, and as a result there are a number of solutions that need to be implemented. Common practices like protecting dangerous mechanical equipment are recommended, as well as ergonomic best practices. Training needs to be improved dramatically in this industry, and the organizational culture with respect to workplace safety and hygiene need to be improved significantly as well.
Ever since the publication of Upton Sinclair's The Jungle in 1906, attention has been paid to the working conditions in slaughterhouses. That book depicts turn-of-the-century slaughterhouses in immigrant areas of Chicago, and the picture is grim. Working conditions are described as being horrific, and the slaughterhouse managers essentially take advantage of immigrants desperate for work, presenting them with grim working conditions, low pay and gruelling hours. On those factors, it does not seem as though much has changed in the slaughterhouse and meatpacking industry. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that over 86,000 people work in the slaughterhouse industry nationwide. The average wage for a worker in this industry is $25,880 per year, or $12.44 per hour, so while these are not minimum wage jobs, they are low-paying jobs, especially given the working conditions. The bottom quartile of workers makes $10.31 per hour or worse, so there are many jobs in the industry that remain minimum wage (BLS, 2014). Jobs in this industry are concentrated on the Midwest and the South, where more animals are raised and in many cases were regulations are minimal.
Slaughterhouse workers face a challenging working environment. The job is physically laborious, the equipment is deadly, sharp and very dangerous, animal carcasses are heavy, there is constant exposure to pathogens, and these workers also face significant psychological trauma (Dillard, 2008). The meat industry is described as "a gigantic maze of factory farms, slaughterhouses and packaging plants ... that kills and processes over 9 billion animals every year" (Dillard, 2008). The industry generally employees low-wage workers with relatively low levels of education. This is because the work is generally low-skill work, but also because the industry working conditions are generally awful, and only the most desperate will work under these conditions.
Other conditions common within the industry contribute to the risks faced by workers. In some cases, working conditions include prolonged exposure to cold, as processed meat is typically refrigerated or frozen for further processing or shipment. Irregular schedules can also exist, creating concentrated levels of work that can exacerbate injury (Messing et al., 1993).
Exposure to blood and live animals is another risk. The inside of a slaughterhouse has been described as "a place of blood, pain and death" (Dillard, 2008). The rapid pace of processing in the slaughterhouse typically results in a disregard for standard safety procedures, and the animals in particular often face gruesome deaths (Dillard, 2008). In particular poultry slaughterhouses are noted for their horrific conditions, as rules regarding the slaughter of chickens are looser than those for mammals, and as a result the common treatment of chickens in slaughterhouses would be illegal if applied to cows and pigs (Dillard, 2008). As a result, slaughterhouse workers are exposed to and participate in horrific acts of violence imposed upon living beings, often resulting in extensive psychological trauma (Dillard, 2008).
OSHA cites a number of hazards that arise from slaughterhouse work. Injury and illness rates are 2.5 times the national average for this industry. Serious injuries requiring work restrictions or days away from work are more than three times the national average in this industry. The largest class of injuries is from musculoskeletal disorders, and many of these are serious injuries. There are also biological hazards associated with this work (OSHA, 2015). Other issues include hearing damage, machinery issues and dangerous equipment as well as issues relating to the use of ammonia.
The rate at which workers are injured in this industry is declining, and doing so faster than the rate of overall workplace injuries in the U.S. The rate of the decline, however, reflects the higher starting point, and the industry-wide injury and illness rates are still double the U.S. average for all industries. Strains, tendonitis and cuts all have dropped significantly, as have rates of chemical burns and amputations. From 1992 to 2002, 229 workers in the industry suffered fatal injuries on the job. It is worth noting, however, that the incidence of injury and illness is widely thought to be underreported, in particular at facilities using undocumented immigrants as laborers, because of worker fears of deportation, and across the industry on account of general disempowerment and poor education levels of workers -- they are not equipped to stand up for themselves in many cases. Another issue that with greater attention ot safety issues, companies have offered financial incentives for units to have injury-free periods, a practice that unfortunately incentivizes the non-reporting of injuries (GAO, 2005).
On the issue of underreporting injuries there are a couple of other dynamics to consider. First, underreporting of injuries distorts the advances that have been made with respect to safety in the industry. Second, non-reporting of injuries increases the risk that the underlying factors that contributed to those injuries will not be addressed; the injuries are more likely to be repeated as remediation cannot occur. Further, the employees in this industry are 42% Hispanic (GAO, 2005). It has been found that Hispanics report a much lower rate of injury than any other demographic group, and many observers feel that this is because of the rise in the use of undocumented immigrants; people who risk deportation are unlikely to report anything to anybody in a position of authority (Culp, Brooks, Rupe and Zwerling, 2008). Thus, the success of this industry in reducing injuries may well be overstated, as the use of undocumented workers is believed to have increased significantly over the past twenty years.
As this paper is concerned with the physical hazards of slaughterhouse work, less attention…
Workers are expected to process large amounts of animals in a very short period of time. "Some cutters are forced to make five cuts every fifteen seconds," a pace that brings about a large number of injuries. Some reports have that 25% of workers in the industry are injured or struck ill every year (Dillard, 2008). Typical injuries in meatpacking include carpal tunnel syndrome, musculoskeletal injuries, all the way to life-threatening injuries. The pace of work demanded by bosses and the use of dangerous tools exacerbates the problem. The knives used are typically very sharp, so that they can easily slice through bone. The hours are also long, and the poverty of the workers makes them likely to take long hours, work overtime, work tired, and also to be disempowered with respect to speaking up against unsafe working conditions. The meatpacking industry is one of the most prominent in research into carpal tunnel syndrome in the workplace, as can be expected when routine physical tasks are performed at a rate of once every three seconds for forty hours per week (Palmer, Harris & Coggon, 2007).
Dangerous conditions are cheaper for companies - and the government does next to nothing." Milo Mumgaard, who is executive director of the Nebraska Appleseed Center in Omaha, said (in the Lincoln Journal Star) the Human Rights Watch report will be "very influential at the national and international levels." It will be especially helpful, Mumgaard explained, "in arguing for national regulation of line speed" in the meatpacking slaughterhouses. The Human Rights Watch
Jungle and Fast Food Nation The American meat industry has been a source of public contention ever since industrialization, periodically brought to the fore by investigations into and revelations of unsafe labor and food safety practices. In particular, Upton Sinclair's novel The Jungle reveals the realities of the meat industry at the beginning of the twentieth century, and Eric Schlosser's book Fast Food Nation reexamines this same industry nearly a hundred